- The Trouble With Genius: Reading Pound, Joyce, Stein, and Zukofsky
Wow: a modernism book that’s fun. If you know Perelman as one of the leading L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets, this may not come as a surprise; his affinities there are patently closer to the smart-guy standup of Charles Bernstein or even David Antin than to the more somber, inward probes of Leslie Scalapino or Susan Howe. Still, criticism is criticism, and academic criticism even more so: generically, we don’t look for fun, or even pleasure, from this kind of book. As for modernism, the “M-word” has been a fighting word for some time now—a necessary corrective to an earlier generation’s over-aestheticization of works whose aims were ambitiously (even grandiosely) more-than-aesthetic—but under the pressure of such a reorientation each of the modernist masterworks has tended, as Barthes warned, to lose its difference. Yet it is in the difference that not only the pleasures of these texts, but the politics too, most interestingly lie.
Perelman knows all this, and delivers on the promise it implies of detailed and specific readings answering to the surprises and quirks of difficult texts rather than to a set of wearily familiar premises that turn out to have programmed their conclusions in advance. Perelman is far from the sort of generalizing impulse (why not call it “reification”?) that ascribes to the word “modernism” a fixed content predicable of any and all instantiations—Eduard Manet and Franz Kline, Ezra Pound and Theodor Adorno, Igor Stravinsky and John Dos Passos, Federico Fellini and Le Corbusier, Vladimir Lenin and Dizzy Gillespie. . . . Perelman shows [End Page 175] his grasp of such problems, as well as his sense of fun, when he remarks that the varieties of criticism now are playing a paper/rock/scissors game: “Victory is claimable from each angle: rock breaks scissors (poet beats critic—explication never does justice to the original); scissors cuts paper (critic finds flaws in theoretical writing); paper covers rock (theory subsumes any specific writing)” (228). Perelman’s reading of modernism manages to “make it new”—and startlingly enough to imply an indictment of the degree to which the custom of academic criticism as usual has rendered stale its objects’ infinite variety.
Perelman’s headlong, impetuous wit, alert at every moment to the previously unsuspected bright idea, gives his book an improvisatory and adventurous feel, an attractive and indeed contagious gusto. So I could fill this review with shrewd, canny, and often very funny quotes; what I can’t do, without violence to the virtues of Perelman’s centrifugal intelligence, is summarize his several arguments about his chosen writers. Instead, I’ll foreground the theme (and it is a theme, for expansion and variation, rather than a confining thesis) announced in the book’s title, The Trouble With Genius. Perelman takes “genius” as an index or symptom of contradictions in the social functions of literature—which makes it look at first glance like a vehicle for a familiar repertoire of theory concerns, an exposé of a specifically Anglo-American variant of what Michel Foucault called the author function, a cultural myth facilitating the marketing, canonization, ideologization (if such a word exists) of certain aspirants to high-culture status and of high culture itself. But it’s not enough simply to denounce such myths; they and their operations need careful historical study via particular cases, and this is what Perelman’s consideration of modernist “genius” takes on, in the process charting terrain that the shibboleths of theory have for some time now made inaccessible: structuralism-and-after intensified the New Critical wariness of authorial intention; and the movement against phenomenological styles of inquiry has had the effect of proscribing “consciousness” and (worse yet) “self-consciousness” as categories of analysis. Yet the masterworks of Pound, James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, and Louis Zukofsky are hardly intelligible without consideration of (or indeed except as expressions of) their authors’ enormous, and enormously idiosyncratic, literary...